Despite Cantor Loss, Reform Still Alive in Congress

It has been nearly a year since the Senate passed a sweeping immigration overhaul on June 27. The House has yet to act. The cause of the delay continues to be the internal divisions within the Republican Conference, with a sizable numbers of the conference opposed to reform.  Many members of Congress are now waiting to see how the primary season will turn out. Will members who have voiced support for immigration reform retain their positions?

Republican primary elections have yet to offer clarity on support for reform

On June 10, the small-tent faction of the Republican party, or the “tea party,” celebrated victory in Virginia’s 7th Congressional district, where a poorly-funded tea party challenger beat the Republican Party’s second-highest-ranking member in the House, Eric Cantor. Cantor was seen as a supporter of reform, although he played both sides of the issue during his campaign. Still, his opponent attacked Cantor’s support for “amnesty,” and Cantor’s loss has given the press more reason to declare immigration reform officially dead.

On the other hand, other primaries have yielded the opposite results for candidates who have been supporters of reform. On the same day that Cantor lost, one of the leaders in pushing reform legislation through the Senate, Lindsey Graham, very comfortably won his primary in South Carolina. Graham received 57 percent of the vote, far ahead of the 15 percent received by the second-place finisher in a field of six challengers.

In May, Renee Ellmers won her primary election in North Carolina’s 2nd district. Ellmers, who has been supportive of reform, won handily over radio talk-show host Frank Roche. Roche used immigration as a focus of his campaign, stating that he would “protect the Republican Party from this massive mistake that is amnesty.” While he received the support of fellow conservative talk-show hosts Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter, Ellmers received the support of 59 percent of the primary voters.

It’s possible that Cantor’s loss will freeze the legislative agenda in this Congress if members become too scared to take any position on anything. However, there were problems with Cantor’s campaign having nothing to do with immigration—after all, a survey of Cantor’s constituents on June 10 found that 72% of Republicans “strongly” or “somewhat” support an immigration reform plan that ensures undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. pay a penalty, learn English, pass a criminal background check, pay taxes, and wait a minimum of 13 years before they can be eligible for citizenship.” (The description mirrors content of the Senate bill.) The inevitable round of obituaries for immigration reform in the wake of Cantor’s loss should therefore be met with some skepticism, given positive results for strong supporters of reform.

Recent polling finds conservative Republicans support reform

In addition to the survey conducted in Eric Cantor’s district mentioned above, there have been a number of other recent polls providing evidence that anti-reform sentiment is not as strong as Republican leaders apparently believe. In the middle of May, Politico released a poll of likely voters in places with the most competitive House and Senate districts. In that poll, voters were asked if they “support or oppose comprehensive immigration reform.” Overall, 71 percent of respondents said they support reform, but the response from Republican voters was not much different—64 percent of Republicans polled said they support comprehensive immigration reform. The Politico poll merely asked about comprehensive immigration reform without specifying what that meant. As we know from other polls, the more reform is described (by saying, for example, it includes a path to citizenship for persons who meet certain conditions such as those contained in the Senate legislation), the more likely the response is supportive.

A collaboration of ten Republican polling firms was used to conduct surveys of registered voters nationwide, with an oversample of Republican voters, in the middle of May. (The collaboration also separately surveyed Hispanic voters.) The national survey found that, among Republican voters, a strong majority supports the idea that “undocumented immigrants” should be “allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship” or should be “allowed to apply for legal status.” Of those who identified as “strong Republicans” the breakdown was 28% supporting citizenship and 37% supporting legal status but not citizenship. (Only 29% support deportation.)

Focusing on Tea Party sympathizers, a poll conducted by McLaughlin and Associates in May found that these voters are more likely to support “a candidate for Congress who supports broad immigration reform, that would increase border security and a way for undocumented immigrants who are already in this country to stay in this country…,” (69 percent) verses a candidate “who focuses only on increasing border security and enforcement” (26 percent).

Results of these polls echo analysis of data guru Nate Silver, who examined a number of public opinion surveys and concluded that Republican voters are broadly supportive of immigration reform. On average, support among Republican voters for reform with conditions attached (such as those contained in the Senate bill) is 72 percent. Furthermore, Silver finds that the voting public is not particularly divided over the issue of immigration—in a list of 11 controversial issues where there is a partisan divide on the solution, immigration reform with a conditional path to citizenship is the least polarizing, with 83% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans supporting that policy.

Republican leaders block the ENLIST Act

Despite strong support for reform among Republican voters, thus far Republican leaders in the House have only thwarted opportunities to move actual legislation addressing pieces of the immigration problem. At the end of May, Rep. Jeff Denham (R – Calif.) attempted to insert his ENLIST Act into the National Defense Authorization Act. Denham’s legislation would provide legal status to certain immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children if they serve in the U.S. military. The legislation was ruled out of order in the House Rules Committee, which determines which amendments will be offered on bills going before the full House. A bill authored by Democrat Joaquin Castro, which would allow recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to enroll in U.S. military academies, was also ruled out of order.

While the legislative window is open, executive action is on hold

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security is reviewing ways immigration enforcement might be made more humane, including the possible expansion of prosecutorial discretion. A unilateral move by the administration would come as a last resort—to mitigate the harmful consequences of the failure of Congress to provide a legislative fix to our broken immigration laws. Executive action would likely be limited, provide only temporary relief, and would be vulnerable to change with a change in administration. It would also likely reduce chances for a more permanent fix through legislation in this Congress, and many observers believe that an announcement of executive action at this stage would be counterproductive.

Indeed, a group of leading immigration reform organizations (including the National Immigration Forum, the Service Employees International Union, and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops among others) issued a statement on May 27 urging the administration to allow time for the House process to take place before taking executive action. The administration subsequently asked the Department of Homeland Security to continue with its review, but to hold off on announcing any recommendations.

There is no timeline for a decision on executive action, but many observers have speculated that the window for legislative action will remain open until sometime this summer, after which time the likelihood of passing legislation in the House is reduced.

This article was written for the National Immigration Forum, and a version appeared in the Forum’s Immigration Policy Update.